WASHINGTON -- In his first major address after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President Bush made it clear he regards all terrorists alike: They are all enemies of freedom.
"These enemies view the entire world as a battlefield, and we must pursue them wherever they are," Bush said in his much-praised speech to Congress. "So long as training camps operate, so long as nations harbor terrorists, freedom is at risk."
This equation, repeated for 2 1/2 years, is his political masterstroke. It takes all the faces of international terrorism -- Hamas militia in the West Bank, Abu Sayyaf guerrillas in the Philippines, insurgents in Iraq -- and morphs them into one enemy.
The equation enabled Bush to expand a regional police action against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks and the regime that harbored them in Afghanistan into a global "war on terror."
And the equation attributed to all of the war's targets a single cause: destruction of freedom. The very notion of freedom under assault touches on deep American feelings, channeling the patriotic energy amassed in the fight against communism and directing it, as through a sluice, into the war on terror.
As a simple statement of US beliefs, this formula has succeeded brilliantly, rallying most Americans behind what Bush has called a war "unlike any we have ever seen."
But beneath the level of rhetoric, where soldiers and intelligence officers risk their lives fighting terrorists, understanding the specific motives and mindset of the enemy is vital. And when major decisions loom that could sway those motives and change those mindsets, it's important for decisionmakers to know whom they are fighting.
One revelation of Bush's "Meet the Press" interview last week is that the president views his "enemies of freedom" equation as much more than a rallying cry: It guides his policy decisions. He clings with almost theological intensity to his belief that fighters in Iraq are terrorists determined to destroy freedom. "There are people who desperately want to stop the advance of freedom and democracy because freedom and democracy will be a powerful long-term deterrent to terrorist activities," Bush said, explaining why he was not surprised by the insurgency.
There's little doubt that some foreigners are in Iraq seeking to wreak havoc, as proved by last week's release of a letter purportedly by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian terrorist with ties to Al Qaeda, vowing to provoke a civil war.
But there's also little doubt that most of the roadside bombings and grenade attacks, particularly in the so-called Sunni Triangle, are by Iraqis who were not part of a larger terrorist organization before the war. On "Meet the Press," Bush referred to attacks by "disgruntled Ba'athists" loyal to Saddam Hussein, but the weight of the evidence, especially since Hussein's capture, is against the view that anyone is fighting for a Hussein restoration.
Much more likely, these fighters are Sunnis who are terrified not of freedom, but of dictatorship in a government dominated by the nation's majority Shi'ite Muslims, many of whom are yearning to retaliate for decades of repression under Hussein, who is Sunni.
Rend Al-Rahim, the ambassador of the US-backed Governing Council, agreed in an interview last week that Sunni fears of a Shi'ite government are behind some of the fighting. And that opinion seems to be shared by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III.
Bremer has been working hard to avoid any one-man/one-vote elections before there are guarantees of minority rights and assurances that all major ethnic groups -- Shi'ite, Sunni, and Kurd -- have a say in the government.
It's a crucial issue, and Bremer is fighting against long odds. By insisting that the United States turn over authority by June 30 -- prior to the Democratic National Convention -- the Bush administration has made it impossible to have a constitution in place when the control is handed back to Iraqis. Thus, Bremer must create, in just four months, a provisional government that is strong enough, legitimate enough, and balanced enough to take control of the country. He must do so with the country's leading Shi'ite cleric breathing down his neck, demanding elections.
That's why Bush's understanding of the real, on-the-ground issues that can spur terrorism is so important. In the end, it will be his decision when power is ceded and to whom it is given.
"I believe so strongly that freedom is etched in everybody's heart -- I believe that -- and I believe this country must continue to lead," Bush said last week.
But part of leadership is knowing whom you are leading. Bremer seems to have a sense of the challenges ahead. But he's going to need some help from his boss if Iraq is truly to become a beacon of freedom and democracy.